Canada 1975: Richard Williams’ Road To Toontown

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I got my first peek at the Pink Panther at the age of three, in 1975, while watching cartoons with my cousin Dana during a family visit to Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia.

Little did I know that the cool cat having all kinds of wacky adventures on the small screen was actually a much bigger star than your typical Saturday-morning TV cartoon character, and that a Canadian was revamping and reintroducing the character to a worldwide movie audience as I enjoyed The Pink One’s animated shenanigans in 1975.

He was introduced in 1963, of course, in the opening-credits sequence to The Pink Panther, the first of six films featuring Peter Sellers as the klutzy Inspector Jacques Clouseau. The Panther didn’t appear in the first sequel, 1964’s A Shot In The Dark, but by then his creators – Warner Brothers veteran Friz Freleng and the 1963 sequence’s co-producer David H. DePatie – had spun him off into a successful, Oscar-winning series of animated shorts that would gain new life on TV after making the rounds in movie theatres.

In the mid-’70s, with Sellers set to reprise the Clouseau role for the first time in over a decade in The Return of The Pink Panther, the Panther himself got a fresh look courtesy of a Toronto native who had already won an Oscar in 1971 for an animated retelling of A Christmas Carol.

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That man, Richard Williams, created an opening sequence that firmly established the Panther as the character in charge of the action, as opposed to the DePatie-Freleng approach – in both the original film and the shorts – that swung wildly back and forth between casting the Panther as a suave hep-cat one moment and a bumbling putz the next. (Comparing him to Freleng’s previous work, one never knew whether the Panther was going to emerge as a Bugs Bunny-like conquering hero or a flattened-at-the-bottom-of-a-cliff Wile E. Coyote type.)

So successful was Williams’ approach for The Return of The Pink Panther – including the opening animation and the end-credits sequence involving the Panther and Clouseau’s sworn enemy, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) – that he was quickly snapped up for the follow-up film, The Pink Panther Strikes Again. With only a year elapsing between the two films’ release, Williams still came up with one of my all-time favourite Pink Panther sequences. Set in a movie theatre, the Strikes Again opening casts the Panther and Williams’ animated re-imagining of Clouseau in The Sound of Music, Singin’ In The Rain, King Kong and Keystone Kops silent comedies, to name but a few, until the hapless Inspector is left trapped inside the movie screen as the credits end. (The two characters show up again at the end of the movie, in a brief animated homage to Jaws.)

While Freleng and DePatie were restored as animation directors for the series’ next instalment, Revenge of The Pink Panther, Williams’ redesign left an indelible mark on the original character. So closely identified were the two that the Panther even appeared in this mock-up of the MGM lion that served as a logo for Richard Williams Animation. (No word on whether any legal action resulted from this bold bit of “pink pride.”)

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By the time his Pink Panther association ended, Williams was already moving onto other achievements, including the Emmy Award-winning 1978 TV Christmas special Ziggy’s Gift and his biggest assignment to date, one that would take up most of his time and energy in the ’80s: an ambitious Disney project that incorporated the studio’s classic cartoon characters with those of several other studios and a few eye-catching newcomers in a mind-bending blend of live action and animation.

 

Yes, that’s right: A Canadian took on the daunting role of animation director for the ground-breaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Even more impressively, Williams did it in the pre-CGI days of hand-drawn animation, using a painstaking fourteen-month process of laying the “Toons” into the live-action scenes, cel-by-cel, one frame at a time.

What’s more, Williams animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit? on his own terms. While his illustrator mother was once courted by Walt Disney Studios, and while a 14-year-old Williams actually got to meet Walt himself shortly before Mickey Mouse’s dad passed away in the mid-’60s, none of this family history mattered to Williams when he refused to work on Roger Rabbit in Los Angeles, as he was “openly disdainful of the Disney bureaucracy” by the mid-’80s. To accommodate Williams, Disney and executive producer Steven Spielberg moved the Roger Rabbit animation studios (and, eventually, the live-action filming) to England’s Elstree Studios, whose pedigree also included the entire run of another colourful production, The Muppet Show, from 1976-81.

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Of course, all the blood, sweat and Toon tears paid off for Williams and Disney, which eventually released Roger Rabbit under its Touchstone Pictures banner in 1988 to near-universal acclaim (and an unadjusted-for-inflation worldwide box-office total of nearly $330 million). The film picked up three Oscars and Williams himself received a Special Achievement Academy Award for his work as animation director; the Academy is still saluting Williams’ work decades later, with his most recent nomination coming last year (at the age of 82) for his six-minute animated short Prologue.

(I am still waiting, however, for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to finally give Williams the Oscar he deserves for voicing the MGM character Droopy the Dog in one of my favourite Roger Rabbit sequences. It’s amazing how much I crack up at the simple drawl Williams gives to Droopy’s few-but-memorable lines.)

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While I’m celebrating Richard Williams in this blog post, I’ll also give a “Saturday morning cartoon shout-out” to two Canadians who also impacted the Pink Panther by giving the usually-wordless character a rare speaking voice. Actor Matt Frewer, better known to most of you as ’80s computer-generated blabbermouth Max Headroom and next-door neighbour Russ in the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids franchise, played the Panther in MGM’s syndicated cartoon series from 1993 to 1996. (In one of that series’ odder moments, a random kid walked up to the Panther and declared “Hey, you look like Max Headroom,” leaving the Pink One confused and mumbling about it for another minute or so. To this day, I have no idea whether that bit was scripted or improvised in the recording studio.)

But the first person to ever give voice to the Pink Panther is impressionist Rich Little, who was called on to give the character a David Niven-like English accent for two of his earliest animated shorts, “Sink Pink” (which finished with the Panther’s only line of the entire cartoon, “Why can’t man be more like animals?“) and “Pink Ice” (which featured the Panther’s voice throughout the entire storyline). Little never got another animated Pink Panther gig, but in a bizarre case of things coming full-circle, the Ottawa native was hired to impersonate Niven as he re-recorded the aging actor’s live-action dialogue for 1982’s Trail of The Pink Panther and 1983’s Curse of The Pink Panther. (The latter film arrived in theatres two weeks after Niven’s death.)

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